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The earliest known household linens were made from thin yarn spun from flax fibres to make linen cloth. Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Phoenicia all cultivated flax crops. The earliest surviving fragments of linen cloth have been found in Egyptian tombs and date to 4000 BCE. Flax fibres have been found in cloth fragments in Europe that date to the Neolithic prehistoric age.
Cotton is another popular fibre for making cloth used for household linens. Its use in cloth-making also dates back to prehistoric times, in Indian subcontinent, China, Peru and Egypt. The Indian subcontinent was especially well known for high quality cotton cloth as early as 1500 BCE.
Linen was an especially popular cloth during the Middle Ages in Europe, when cotton was an exotic import. It was used for underclothing, chemises, shifts, shirts and blouses, in fact most clothing worn next to the skin, by those able to afford an extra layer of clothing. The tradition of calling household fabric goods "linens" dates from this period, but meant clothing as much as large sheets. According to medieval tradition, which survived up until the modern era, a bride would often be given a gift of linens made by the women in her family as a wedding present, to help her set up her new married home. In France this was called a , and was often presented to the bride in a wooden hope chest.
The Industrial Revolution brought huge changes to cloth manufacturing. The rise of European colonialism at the same time helped support the rapid growth of cloth production by creating many cheap sources of raw materials. British cloth manufacturers would import raw cotton from America and the British West Indies to Ireland, where it would be spun into yarn. The yarn would be imported into England, where mechanized factories employed thousands of workers, who would weave cloth on industrial looms. In 1781, a cloth producer from Manchester testified about his business to a committee of the House of Commons in the British Parliament. He stated that he employed 6000 workers, who would print and stamp 60,000 yards of cotton and linen fabric a year. Cotton gradually replaced linen for most uses in clothing, but remained preferred for bedsheets and tablecloths. Other European countries manufactured and traded their own types of household linens as well, and mass manufacturing techniques and trade competition gradually made affordable household linens common.
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